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Plan Cóndor: The Search for Justice

By Emily Tarbuck | The Argentina Independent | March 20, 2013

Earlier this month, a trial of monumental historic significance commenced in Argentina. A trial that will see a group of military leaders prosecuted for their involvement in the ‘Plan Cóndor’ campaign; an agreement between the right-wing dictatorships of South America which led to the disappearance and murder of up to 80,000 people during the 1970s and 1980s.

In what is expected to last two years, and call upon over 500 witnesses, the trial represents a significant step towards achieving justice for crimes against humanity committed at the hands of the Southern Cone’s brutal collusion.

The History

The brutal right-wing military dictatorships that raged terror and political oppression across the continent defined the 1970s and 1980s in South America. The exact number of victims is disagreed upon, but it is estimated that the era saw the ‘disappearance’ of over 60,000 people in the fight to eradicate communist influence on the continent.

The sprawling dictatorships across the continent led to the clandestine kidnapping, torture, and murder of thousands of Latin Americans, with the aim of “eliminating Marxist subversion”, from Argentina, to the Augusto Pinochet-ruled Chile.

Targets of the eradication were officially stated as members of left-wing armed groups such as the MIR (Chile), the Montoneros (Argentina), and the Tupamaros (Uruguay), although the operation targeted trade unionists, family members, and anyone remotely considered a ‘political opponent’.

The formation of ‘Plan Cóndor’ – or ‘Operation Condor’ in English– was paramount to the continuation and reach of the dictatorships. The collusion of Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Brazil (and later Ecuador and Peru) enabled leaders to obtain resources and allies, thus continuing their left-wing eradication.

Set in the context of the Cold War, there was a palpable communist fear felt across the globe; something that enabled the dictatorships to garner significant funding and assistance from the United States. Declassified CIA documents –thousands of which were released in 1999 (here, here, here, and here)- show the key role the US played in the proliferation of the dictatorships. Politicians such as former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger have been heavily implicated as having been fundamental in the realisation of the kidnapping, torture, and murder of political enemies.

Argentina in particular saw one of the highest cases of ‘disappearances’ during the period of mass military dictatorships, with human rights’ organisations estimating the figure to stand at 30,000. Justice for the crimes against humanity committed during this period of state terrorism arguably began with the Juicio a las Juntas in 1985. The trial proved the crimes of the dictatorship for the first time, and led to the imprisonment of key figures such as Jorge Videla and Emilio Massera, both of whom received life imprisonment sentences, along with numerous others.

However, the work of the historic trial was largely undone, or at least heavily marred, by the amnesty laws passed during Raul Alfonsin’s government, which protected military officers from allegations and prosecution for crimes against humanity. This was followed by President Carlos Menem’s pardoning of the junta leaders in 1989. Protests and campaigning by organisations such as the Madres of Plaza de Mayo were fundamental in the repeal of the amnesty laws by the Argentine Supreme Court in 2005 under the government of Néstor Kirchner.

The Trial

For the first time, the collusion between governments and dictators under the ‘Plan Cóndor’ campaign will be investigated. Twenty five defendants are on trial in Buenos Aires in what has been described as a ‘mega-trial’, expected to last two years and scheduled to hear 500 witness statements. Lawyer Carolina Varsky described the trial as: “historic as it’s the first to deal with the repression coordinated between Latin American dictatorships.”

All suspects being tried are Argentine, with the exception of Uruguayan Manuel Cordero, who is accused of participating in death squads and torture at the Orletti clandestine detention centre in the city. Cordero was extradited by Brazil, where he was living prior to the trial. The list of defendants features 22 Argentine military intelligence officers and agents, including former de facto presidents Jorge Videla and Reynaldo Bignone, both of whom are already serving life imprisonment sentences, which they will most likely not outlive.

Argentine political scientist Ariel Raidan spoke with The Argentina Independent about the significance of the commencement of the trial, and said how it signifies the government’s focus on “building a more just society, where truth and justice come first, overcoming years of impunity.”

“The countries of the continent are beginning to revise its tragic past. Both advances and setbacks have occurred in the fight for justice over the years, but this trial has a clear conviction to expose as many facts as possible” continued Raidan.

The trial will investigate the cases of over 170 victims, including 65 who were imprisoned at the infamous Orletti torture centre in Buenos Aires. Victims were often kidnapped from their home country and transported to the facilities of a neighbouring country; a practice made possible by the collusion of governments in the Southern Cone. Much evidence to be examined in the trial, and what prosecutors are heavily basing their case upon, comes from the now declassified US documents, obtained by the non-governmental organisation National Security Archive. Released under the Freedom of Information Act, the documents detail how Henry Kissinger and many other high-ranking officials in the US not only gave full support and funding to the Argentine military junta, but also urged the country to accelerate protocol and finish their operations before the US Congress cut aid. The documents, featuring signatures of many high-ranking officials, have led to accusations that the US was a secret collaborator, partner, and sponsor of the operation.

Additionally, documents identified as the ‘Archives of Terror’, discovered in a police station in 1992, were significant in the uncovering of the role of Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela. These countries provided intelligence information that had been requested by ‘Plan Cóndor’ participating countries.

The victims are comprised of approximately 80 Uruguayans, 50 Argentines, 20 Chileans, and a dozen from Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador. The disappearance of two Cuban consulate officials will also form part of the proceedings. Out of the 170 victims, 42 survived the dictatorship’s brutal treatment and many of them are expected to give first hand accounts during their testimonies in court. The remaining victims were murdered or ‘disappeared’ at the hands of the Cóndor agreement.

John Dinges, author of ‘The Condor Years: How Pinochet and his Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents’, said that, “this is historic in the sense that we’re going to hear from 500 witnesses. And really, in the Latin American legal system, it’s unusual. It’s really only coming to the fore now that you hear witnesses, as opposed to just seeing them give their testimony to judges in a closed room, and then later on people like me might go and read those testimonies, but really it doesn’t become public. This is all public. And apparently, a lot of it is being videotaped. So this is the first time that the general public is going to hear the details of this horrible, horrible list of atrocities that killed so many people.”

Alcira Ríos, the lawyer representing a Paraguayan victim whose case is to be tried in the coming months, said “we’re delighted that after years of struggle this has finally come to trial… the ‘disappeared’ deserve justice.”

The Future

Raidan spoke of his hope that “the trial will shed light on the specific articulation and coordination of the military juntas that ruled the countries of the Southern Cone”. The hope of many is to see clandestine details released that have for so long been shrouded in secrecy and cover-ups. The culmination of new documents, evidence, and witness statements has created a strong sense of hope that further justice will be achieved over the course of the trial. “The documents are very useful in establishing a comprehensive analytical framework of what Operation Condor was,” said Pablo Enrique Ouvina, the lead prosecutor in the case.

Miguel Angel Osorio, federal prosecutor in the case, has said that he is convinced of the existence of Operation Condor and that he believes it will be clearly proved, as well as “the actions of those implicated [in the plan] which prove that there was a illicit agreement to move people from one country to another”.

Perhaps closure will not be fully achieved over the brutal repression and crimes against humanity committed during this era, but there is a palpable sense surrounding the case that some semblance of a resolution will be achieved; that justice will be reached.

March 20, 2013 - Posted by | Civil Liberties, Subjugation - Torture, Timeless or most popular | , , , , , , , , , ,

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